Re: Activism and salvage anthro

stephanie m huelster (huelster@STUDENTS.WISC.EDU)
Tue, 9 Jan 1996 09:51:56 -0600

In response to Bret's post re: what the role of Anthropology is to be - I
would first say that my understanding of the phrase 'salvage anthropology'
is that this pracrise was prevalent in the early 70's and beyond and that
the premise was to 'save' through documentation and study 'vanishing'
cultures that were being wiped out and destroyed by rampant western
industrial and emerging industrial nation/states. It was a mindset that was
based on the idea that change (for better or worse) meant extinction and
that this change whether forced upon or inititated by a culture was a
horrible loss to the human community as a whole. The native wearing shorts
was no longer a a true cultural being and was tainted, diluted and sullied
by western influences. This idea of 'salvage anthropology' and the
troubling moral/ethical questions that surround it seem to me to have
included a large element of 'activism' rather than have been complacent in
observing change. Today, what seems to be taken as non active complacency
by concerned investigators like Bret really, IMHO, could be seen as a
realization that casting cultures in the midst of change (forced or
initiated) as vanishing, helpless, endangered and threatened comes very
close to being as hegemonic an attitude towards 'other' nonwestern peoples
we are interested in learning about and from as being implicated as
westerners causing their 'extinction' does in the first place. Many
cultural practises have of course vanished, but many more have simply
changed over time to reflect a changing global situation. Is a Kayapo
without a feather headdress and a cam corder still a Kayapo ? Salvage
anthropology would have said no, but Turner, I believe would say yes.

In terms of a'world hierarchy' that perhaps should not, but yet still does
at present exist, it is a very difficult question to decide to what extent
activism or involvment or advocacy should be a part of each individual's
research, learning experience and career. The bottom line for myself is
that each experience with another culture exists in a unique set of
circumstances, so that it is impossible to attempt to draft an activist
manifesto that will be a guide to conduct in a given situation. Activism
and immersion are case specific activities. The decision to act can't be
advocated by the discipline as a whole, but must be the personal decision
of the individual. In spite of Malinowski, the discipline cannot really
tell you what to do in the field and cannot dictate your own specific sense
of right and wrong.
For example, if you are Nancy Schepper- Hughes, Berkeley activist in the
60's as well as tenured American professor and looking at the situation in
Brazil through the multiple lenses of medical science, political activism
and feminism, then taking an active role against the Brazilian gov. seems a
good idea, not to mention the fact that the culture you are dealing with is
itself a facet of Brazilian culture. If you are Alcidia Ramos, on the other
hand, a university professor in Brazil and therefore more closely tied to
the gov.(as a citizen) as well as having for your subject the Sanuma, an
indigenous group confronting the ever advancing destruction caused by
mining and disease, your approach to activism is necessarily different, and
in fact more subtle. The problematic question about activism for me has
always been, how do you know you are really 'acting' in the best interest
of the people you propose to act for ? Do they want/solicit your help ? Are
you listening to what these people want, whether you feel it is the 'best'
decision for them or not ?

Obviously I have rambled even more than Bret, but if we are going to end
up debating this topic of activism, I would have to come down on the
cautious side and stress its situational specificity as well as draw out
the differences this type of activism (dealing with human groups) has from
other types such as endangered speices and environmental activism for

Stephanie m Huelster
UW Madison